It’s hard to believe that the quiet, unassuming town of Bacalar has such a colorful and violent history! The subject of who first inhabited this lakeside town is up for debate. Whether established by the Itzaes or the Mayas, one thing is for certain- Bacalar, meaning ‘Lagoon of 7 Colors’ in Maya, was a prominent point in the Mayan trade route.
The lagoon offers a narrow channel (Canal de los Piratas) in which large merchant and pirate ships entered into the lagoon to gain access to the inland. Due to its prime positioning within the prosperous trading channels, those who called Bacalar home often came under siege and had to battle against Spanish opposition as well as notorious pirates.
At one point in its history, the town was pillaged by a savage pirate crew, which not only ransacked the village but took its women as well. The male town folk decided to go after the dastardly pirates and successfully returned with the women. However, months later the vengeful pirate captain returned to destroy the village, leaving it in ruins. The toll of the brutal attack was unbearable for most who left in the direction of Chichen Itza. A few stayed and continued living in the area.
In the early 1700s, the Fort of San Felipe was constructed to protect the town. A deep moat surrounded the fortress and sharp stakes were implanted in the moat floor, which made it virtually impossible to cross it to gain entry. For centuries, the fort offered protection, but today stands as a museum overlooking the gorgeous Bacalar Lagoon.
Living only 3 hours away, it baffles me that it took 5 years to book a weekend getaway to Bacalar! Nevertheless, it lived up to my expectations in every way. The lagoon’s 7 colors, the nearly 300 year-old fortress with its preserved cannons, and the simplistic Mexican lifestyle left me fascinated.
Bacalar was named a ‘Pueblo Mágico’ or Magical Town in 2006. It is far from a bustling city although it is a popular tourist destination. You can count the number of good restaurants on one hand. The main square comes alive after the sun sets. Vendors set up displays of their handcrafted wares. An ‘artists-in-the-making’ station with mini easels and painting supplies is available for children. Food carts line the exterior of the ‘Parque Central’ in the town’s center selling traditional Yucatan treats like marquesitas (crisp crepes rolled with nutella and sprinkled with shredded cheese.) We also got a kick out of the town’s night club – a double-decker bus pumping dance music and taking groups of party people for a 5 minute tour around town.
We arrived late the first evening and dined at Los Aluxes, about a 4-minute drive from the Central Park. It was dark, but we could imagine how amazing the blue-green view would be in the daytime. There were swings over the water by the dock, which made us wish we that we would have come here to enjoy breakfast and morning dip rather than dinner (which was mediocre.)
Tip: For the best meal we had in Bacalar and views that will take your breath away, ask for a table near the water at La Playita.
During the day is when you want to take advantage of the abundance of water activities available on. There are bunches of ways to get out on the stunning lagoon and enjoy the views. All along the road (Boulevard Costero, which runs parallel to the lagoon) are tour providers as well as lodging proprietors renting kayaks or sailboats.
A friend had recommended we call Erik (983-835-9400) with Bucanero Pontoon boat. He’s a local who grew up in Bacalar and is full of information. We boarded the pontoon boat from a dock at Hostel Casa China and headed out for our Bacalar water adventure. Erik took us first to 2 of the 3 cenotes that surround the lagoon. At the edge of these lagoons, he pointed out where the springs from the underground river system feed the lagoon. We were able to swing from a rope into the refreshing, dark blue waters here.
Next up was ‘Canal de Los Piratas’ with its narrow passageway, which gave grand ships coming from the Caribbean access to the land back in the day. The water at this pit stop was the kind of clear blue water you would expect to see on a Bora Bora advertisement. This is where we spent the majority of our time wading in the shallow water, jumping in from a concrete, makeshift ship, and giving ourselves full-body scrubs with silt from the lagoon’s floor.
As we cruised along, the sun shone bright for most of the boat ride, with a little cloud cover. It was the perfect weather to witness the multicolored lagoon. Since the light coming from the sky changed so much, so did the colors of the water! We were able to see the 7 shades of the lagoon including turquoise, baby blue, emerald and sandy beige. The color palette and natural setting were picturesque.
FYI: This particular boat tour was just over 2 hours and cost $300 pesos per person. Part of the pontoon boat had a tarp covering which provided some nice shade. Biodegradable sunscreen is strongly recommended. Pack your own snacks and drinks.
Another serene Bacalar activity is to take to the water via paddleboard. This tour lasts 3 hours with a cost of $300 pesos. You paddle to the cenotes as well as the Pirate’s Canal and a light snack (water and fruit) is included.
Tip: Although the lagoon is quite calm, there is a strong current. The full tour across the lagoon is not recommended for children. However, kids can still get in on the paddleboard fun by sticking close to the shore.
Finding our land legs, we decided to visit the Fort of San Felipe. The views from atop the ramparts extended across the Bacalar Blue waters all the way to the ‘Canal de los Piratas.’ Inside is a museum with exhibits of old weapons like muskets and hatchets, cannon balls (which were surprisingly small) and even a skeleton of an actual pirate!
On one wall was a vibrant mural depicting some of the historical people and events of Bacalar, as well as plaques with riveting information (in both Spanish and English) of the famous characters that played a part in Bacalar’s rich past.
Although the drawbridge is now a concrete pathway, the cannons and fortress walls are well preserved. Having the opportunity to read about Bacalar’s interesting past and see some recovered artifacts was well worth the $30 peso entrance fee. (The ticket in costs a bit more, but is still under $5US for foreigners.)
On our final day in the area, after checking out of the hotel, we went for breakfast to fuel up then headed to Los Rapidos. Just 5 minutes past Bacalar along the highway, it is a fantastic spot to float along a lazy river, have lunch and bask the Mexican sun.
There was a fee of $50 pesos for adults and $25 for kids to enter this charming little ranch. On-site are washrooms/change room facilities, a restaurant and hammocks or lounge chairs to relax in and enjoy a completely laid-back day.
The scenery of the palm-lined, turquoise shaded river is breathtaking and you can find more of the ‘Live Rocks’ here. A pet monkey stands guard at the entrance and chickens roam freely on the lawn. Cold beers and non-alcoholic beverages are served as well as casual eats like shrimp cocktail and sandwiches.
Tip: The river has a pretty powerful current. There are ropes stretched from one bank to the other, but it is highly recommended that adults accompany young children.
After a few hours at this little piece of heaven, our time in Bacalar was up. If ever in Playa del Carmen, this is a fantastic 2-day escape from city life. I can’t wait to go back!
- Bacalar is a very beautiful, but rustic destination. That being said, there are boutique and modern hotels. Don’t be afraid to the stay in a hostel, some are nicer than the hotel we chose (Toto Blue is way overpriced for what you get!) Pata de Perro is a nice option. It is advised to book your accommodations in advance.
- There are a full range of services like bank machines, wi-fi, taxis, gas stations, mechanics and a medical clinic.
- Cenote Azul is said to be the deepest cenote in the Yucatan Peninsula with an estimated depth of 300 feet. It is just on the outskirts of town with a restaurant overlooking the majestic cenote.
- Other restaurants with great food include El Manati for breakfast and Pizzeria Bertilla.
Getting to Bacalar:
- Rent a car (3-3.5 hour drive)
- Ado Bus from Playa (just under 4 hours, around $300 Mxn round trip.)
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.